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Jul/Aug 2015 Fiction

Tasneem

by Ahsan Butt

Photography by Lydia Selk

Photography by Lydia Selk


"The door's unlocked."

The words came through Tasneem's side of the phone, but were bumped of meaning by backwards-stepping, shoulder-spreading Yankee fans on the D. Nearly an hour later, after she had punched in Ms. Munro's code and cracked open the building door, after the thinly penned "Do Not Use" sign diverted her from the elevator to a four-flight pilgrimage up the boiling, fume-trapped stairwell—meaning returned. When she pushed through Ms. Munro's unlocked door, Tasneem was sweating, the words hot in her chest.

"Ms. Munro?"

The lamps in the living room were off. The only light in the kitchen was coming through the window. As always, the room was thick with used air, the windows too hopelessly small.

Tasneem flicked her shoes off and hurried down the hallway that split the apartment. She jabbed her head into the bathroom, which was empty, and then continued towards Ms. Munro's bedroom. The room looked dark, but as she got closer, she saw a faint light reflecting off the door.

"Ms. Munro?"

Tasneem stopped just inside the bedroom and exhaled a hot breath.

"Taz."

Tasneem could barely hear her over the television's whispers of "I Love Lucy." Ms. Munro lay flat, a sole pillow under her head. She looked small, her quilt heavy.

"Why was the door unlocked?" Tasneem asked.

"Been unlocked for a few days."

"Have you been up and about?"

"When I need to."

"You just forgot about the door?"

"I unlocked it."

"Why?"

She didn't answer. An empty glass waited on the bedside table with a silver coaster atop its rim.

"Why didn't you call me?"

"I didn't want to fuss."

"It's no fuss," Tasneem said in the same voice she used when her sister was being irrational. After all these months, what was fuss? She approached the bed and tried to lighten the quilt.

"I didn't want the fuss."

Tasneem looked up from the quilt to Ms. Munro's face, hoping to find the crabbiness she didn't hear. The bedside lamp cast a shine across Ms. Munro's eyes.

"Can you stay the night?"

 

Tasneem's mother seldom cried. Her mood frequently took off into extreme weather, but the turbulence was unserious. Inappropriately sized spoons made her angry. People who used large spoons to stir chai were lunatics. Tasneem and Nosh would bring decorative soup spoons and endure railings for each other's amusement. Gelled hair made her laugh. Men with their hair slicked across their scalp, over or backwards, looked like roosters. She would imitate a rooster and laugh. Eventually her hand would make a sweeping motion to mean some pee had escaped.

That evening, however, with the house full and Tasneem's going away hardening into reality, she plunged into sobs. All night, through tears, history was told—and God can eat her soul if she's lying: Tasneem was brilliant the moment she was born; Tasneem never caused an ounce of pain; Tasneem's birth itself was over faster than chai. One of Tasneem's younger cousins broke into bhangra after one speech, celebrating the moment his khala finally lost her mind.

The house's main wing, one of three, was constant noise. Tasneem's mother had four sisters and they had several children, some of whom were married and had their own children, and everyone who wasn't somewhere abroad came to the house, at least to say goodbye. Children chugged room to room screaming because it felt good. Head tilts and hands made points. Insinuations needed whistling. Subtlety wasn't attempted. Tasneem's grandmother called for the dholki. A chorus of scratchy voices tried to claw over thuds, claps, and the spoon that knocked topside. Dinner rolled on in plates in laps and shared glasses. The help disappeared dirty dishes for clean ones. Each of Tasneem's aunts whisked her away around a corner where her mother couldn't see and stuffed money in her hand, which she tried to force back into clenched fists. Nosh stayed close throughout the night.

It ended suddenly. Two families left at once and the noise sucked out with them. Then the rest left. One of Tasneem's aunts lived in the adjacent plot and another down the street. The other two lived in a newer gated community—complete with its own mall—a short drive away.

Nosh loitered as Tasneem finished packing late.

"Ammi promised I can visit after my exams."

"Ammi's promises can change into threats fast. We'll see what she says if you don't stay on."

"I know." Nosh picked at a scab near the bottom of her shirt. "Maybe she'll let me go to NYU, too."

"Focus on your A-levels. Get into LUMS, Nosh. Then you can worry about convincing Ammi."

"Obviously, I need to get the marks."

"That's the first thing, then she has to trust you."

Nosh stepped between the splayed suitcases and stood over Tasneem as she folded and stuffed.

"I'm wearing everything you leave behind."

"Just don't eat with my clothes on."

Nosh's laugh bumbled, and then she was crying. Tasneem stood up and put her arms around her.

"You're just crying now so you don't have to wake up early to say goodbye."

 

The ride to the airport passed by endless construction. A twig of a man, who she knew was probably hard as steel, sipped tea alone on the plank of a second floor that didn't exist yet.

Muzaffir pulled her suitcases out of the trunk. She thanked him for all the chully and chuckerkhundi runs over the years. Of all people, he was the least likely to be there when she returned. She hugged him with one arm, and he smiled and touched the top of her head.

Drivers get fired. Drivers die.

She boarded the plane. A man stood in the emergency exit row and prayed fajr.

New York would be different. She had a quick cry and texted Nosh.

"Love to Ammi and Abu. Be good. I don't think I like flying."

 

Tasneem had never considered her face could freeze. Winter was cunning. She dreaded leaving her residence and then dreaded leaving the computer lab. She considered buying a niqab.

Her first trek to Ms. Munro's apartment cut against a belligerent December afternoon. She had completed her hospice volunteer training the week prior thanks to a flyer and a whim. The center was understaffed, so she was quickly placed with Ms. Munro.

The wind was the other thing she had failed to grasp back in Lahore. The walk from the D to the address in the file was a lashing. At the building, she dialed "MUNRO, M." and the door buzzed it was all over, which was a lie, she realized. It was only half over.

The elevator smelled of harsh paint. Tasneem hit "4," and it rose with cracking knees. She followed the arrows for "401 – 410" and found the apartment around the corner. Her raw knuckles knocked. When the door was slung back, the warmth of Ms. Munro's apartment broke over Tasneem's face like God's touch.

"It's a nasty bitch out there," Ms. Munro said. Her eyes moved impatiently, jumpy floodlights on a small, thinly haired head. Tasneem rarely felt dumb, but she did now, trying to find the English for a response she hadn't come up with yet. She wondered what her face looked like. Ms. Munro shuffled back a few steps, and Tasneem stepped in to allow the door to shut behind her.

"I'll get you some tea," Ms. Munro said and skittered into the kitchen.

Tasneem bent down to tug her boots off in the most polite way. She hated boots. They made her feel like a child. She placed them on the lowest rung of the shoe rack, leaning on a slight incline. The last morsels of clinging snow melted and dripped back to the heels before dropping into the carpet. She left the mess, stepping lightly in her damp socks, and entered the living room.

Tasneem had never been in a white woman's home. White friends' dorms of course, but dorms were for shallow living. Hearts didn't soak there, not intentionally.

She looked through the living room to the kitchen where Ms. Munro jittered around a kettle. Behind her, frost smothered a window dead. In front of Tasneem, a dumpy sofa and an old, stiff-looking armchair watched the television. A wood table marked with tea rings sat in between. There were books packed tightly, stacked and lined, on short shelves around the room. Crime and History, from what Tasneem could tell.

The kettle began to whistle. This was where the woman did her living. Boxed in by the cold. Silent except for someone lugging through the hallway on the other side of the wall, behind the television, past the front door, and then gone around the corner. Tasneem's lungs wouldn't fill.

"Have a seat, if your legs aren't stuck stiff." Ms. Munro shuffled over a clinking tray that looked heavier than her. Tasneem sunk into the dumpy sofa. She was sweating. Her shins rubbed against the wooden table. The tray dropped on the table loudly.

"If you've said anything, I haven't heard it. You quiet?"

She was going to get fired.

Tasneem bit her lip. "No, I think I'm still frozen."

Ms. Munro took a cup and sat in the armchair. She should have looked small, but her gaze was leveling, the top of the chair cut out of focus. Tasneem didn't want to get fired.

"Indian?"

"Pakistani."

"You're from there?"

"Yes."

"Student?"

"Yes," Tasneem said. "Graduate studies."

"What program?"

"Data science."

Ms. Munro blew the steam off her tea. "That's computers?"

"Yes, and math. We try to find new ways to understand data."

"Heady," she sipped. "I like that."

Tasneem took her tea off the table and blew on it. She looked in the green water for a reason why this country drank such weak chai. She dumped in two heaps of sugar and stirred.

"You seeing the city?"

"Not too much yet."

"Don't let the cold put a squeeze on you," Ms. Munro said, shooting a look at the frosted window in the kitchen.

"Oh, no, I'm not... and if you need things from outside, there's no issue..."

"I don't have errands for you. I'm fine." Ms. Munro smiled. "My doctor signed me up for this and my daughter insisted I return the calls."

Tasneem had a file on Ms. Munro, but she tried to forget her biography. It felt unfair to know so much about her.

"Is your daughter living far away?"

"Florianopolis. It's a beach town in Brazil. Been there for almost..." she sifted through memories, "...almost 20 years."

"Does she come home often?"

"When she can. She's not exactly making a fortune down there."

The pictures that hung along the walls came into focus. Ms. Munro and a smiling blonde pressed cheek to cheek in all, overlooking a tented ruin, blurred in torrential rain, in a cave, on a beach. Their large blue eyes mirrored each other's like an illusion. Ditto copy, someone from home would say.

"This doesn't have to be about errands," Tasneem said.

Ms. Munro looked unconvinced.

"We can just have time."

"For?"

"What do you like?"

Ms. Munro put her tea down on the table and drew her eyes around Tasneem, performing a silent calculus with the variables she had.

"Confessions," she said. "Honest ones. No church, no Father. Just between people."

Tasneem noticed that the television had been on the entire time, playing very low. Sometimes she played movies really low like that on her laptop to help her fall asleep in her dorm.

"You game?" Ms. Munro asked.

"Yes, game."

"Okay, prove it."

Tasneem groaned. "Ooof Allah," she let slip.

"Has to be true."

"Of course. I wouldn't lie."

Tasneem tossed her mind about for something harmless. Something mean she had done to Nosh when they were kids. Maybe a mild embarrassment in school. She tried on a few stories in her head, but she felt as if Ms. Munro could see in there, too, that she knew what Tasneem was doing and thought it was the same as lying. Those eyes were too large to be polite.

"I hate it that you said Indian first. Oh, God..." Tasneem keeled over sideways, plunging into deep cushions. "I hate it! I hate it..."

Ms. Munro slapped her hands together and bounced in her seat. Her laugh was like a series of honks reverberating through a goose's beak. Tasneem laughed herself breathless into the cushions. After a long while, she rose back to a dignified posture and said, "Okay, it's your go..."

 

Nosh gained admission to LUMS in late July, and two weeks later was at Laguardia's gates. Tasneem crushed her at arrivals, squeezing to admit to herself how inadequate emails and skype really were. They dragged the four bags off her luggage cart and began the car-less odyssey back to Tasneem's dorm.

They dropped her bags off, and Tasneem asked if she needed to sleep. "Mind over matter," Nosh replied. She showered, and they were off.

Tasneem had the week planned. She understood Nosh's NEW YORK and New York as it existed, trapped in time and space. She aimed for something in between.

They did the Gugenheim and MOMA; watched an artist slice crates of onions in a tiny studio until everyone cried; saw a foreign film about two childhood friends, an orthodox convent in rural Romania, and a forced exorcism; filled the purposefully empty suitcase Nosh brought with boutique shoes; entered into tumultuous coffee addictions; walked through Central Park and Chelsea Market; and ate and ate. Nosh had sashimi and made herself like it until she did.

On Nosh's second to last morning Tasneem laid a phone down on the table.

"Take this. Finish your shopping, then meet me at Ms. Munro's apartment around seven. Teek hain?"

Nosh tilted her head in a timid "sure."

Tasneem unfolded a map in thirds and went over where everything was and what lines to take, showing her how the lines intersected, reminding her to know the direction she wanted to go.

"Don't be a hero, Nosh. Use the map, use the phone."

"I will."

"You do it once alone, and you're fine. Every city is the same. You can go anywhere," Tasneem said, deciding that must be mostly true.

"Got it, yaar." Nosh scribbled a list of directions in the Hudson river. "What do you do with this old woman?"

"Chit-chat. Bring food, make chai. Just be with her."

"Oh my God." Nosh looked up, still half remembering. "You know Ammi told everyone you're volunteering as a doctor."

"Ooof Ammiiiiii!"

They collapsed over the city, Nosh remembering and Tasneem imagining, wonderfully, the same thing.

 

The doctor had said Ms. Munro wouldn't make it past March. When she made it to April Fools with no change in her, Tasneem's dread dried out and in flowed a cool, relieving skepticism. Though she didn't notice it, she couldn't say "doctor" without a smirk.

Then Ms. Munro began to shrink. Tasneem noticed it the third week of July. Her body was being stripped of her. Her eyes receded under drooping lids. Her words struggled in mucus. Her laugh abbreviated. She heard less, ate less, and moved less. Her skin pulled taut under her chin and against her cheekbones, the wrinkles she had earned taken away. She was disappearing into a void at the base of her skull. It seemed ruthlessly personal.

Still, Ms. Munro was out of bed every day. The hospice center said to let them know when that wasn't the case.

Ms. Munro and Tasneem folded laundry on her bed waiting for Nosh to buzz. Tasneem tried not to notice how the long sleeves she held dangled just as loosely as the ones hanging from Ms. Munro's frame.

"Okay, confession," Ms. Munro said. Her chin pinned an off-white thermal. "When I was seven, my mother and father started to fight a lot. My mother wanted another baby before she dried up. My father said money was fixed as it is. They shouted, usually went to bed separate. This one night, I listened from my room and waited for them to finished fighting. My mother went to bed, and I could hear my father watching television. I snuck downstairs and curled into his lap. He kissed me on the forehead, asked me what's wrong. I told him I had a nightmare that they had another baby. He asked me why that was scary. I said, because it meant I wasn't enough for them. Seven years old, that's what I said. So he promised me they wouldn't have another. The fights were short after that. I was my father's trump card. I don't think she ever stopped resenting us. That's a horrible thing, resenting your own child."

Ms. Munro's phone murmured on the table. Tasneem beeped Nosh in.

"Irony is, I grew up and wished I had a sister. Anyway." Ms. Munro smiled and laid the thermal atop the folded pile. "I'm excited to meet Nosh."

Tasneem squeezed her hand and headed to the door.

Nosh sidled her shopping bags in and then fell back against the door, panting with her tongue out before remembering she was in a stranger's home and realizing the stranger was standing in front of her. Tasneem introduced them, and they went back to Ms. Munro's room to finish the laundry. Nosh sat near the bed, saying little.

"Congratulations on your admission, Nosh. You're heady like Taz."

"Thank you but not quite."

"Nosh would rather be 'posh'," Tasneem said. "Ms. Munro studied philosophy in college."

Nosh said, "Oh," which didn't sound like enough, so she smiled, but Ms. Munro was looking down, stuffing one sock into another. "Did you like it?"

"I loved it when it was about the way things are and what could be true, or what that even means." She cleared her throat. "Most of it though was someone arguing with someone else. That ruined it for me. I can't stand when people try to prove things."

"That sounds interesting. The first part."

"This is Nosh being proper—she hates philosophy. I told her once to take an intro course to round herself out. You know what she said?" Tasneem angled her head away from Ms. Munro, but fixed her eyes up towards her: "'Philosophy is for wankers.'"

Ms. Munro's mouth dropped and several glorious honks came from her nose. "I'm not a wanker!"

Nosh slung herself over her armrest and covered her head with her arms.

Tasneem raised a hand and pointed to her heart. "Promise! That's what she said!"

They stayed for another 20 minutes. Tasneem prepared soup in the kitchen while Nosh helped Ms. Munro put her laundry away. Then they said goodbye, and Ms. Munro locked several locks behind them.

It was past sunset when they stepped onto the D and settled into seats. The air moved freely through the nearly empty train. They bunched the shopping bags in their laps like blankets.

There were no more plans.

Nosh hadn't said anything since they left the apartment. Finally, as the train pulled off into her last night in the city, Nosh laid her head on Tasneem's shoulder and said, "No one should die alone."

 

Tasneem didn't have her things, but she would make do. She could borrow something to sleep in, and Ms. Munro owned enough extra blankets for everyone in the building. It was August anyhow, how many blankets could she need? And so on.

Ms. Munro took painful, climbing breathes. Her coughs were thick. Pink splotches spread over more and more of her kerchief.

It was happening too quickly.

She thought of Jeanette in Brazil.

Jeanette had visited a couple months earlier. Tasneem wanted to hate her, and at first, that went well. She resented the banter Jeanette shared with her mother, even the way they snapped at each other, and when Jeanette asked Tasneem to go outside for a smoke, she judged that, too. But once they were outside, Jeanette's hand shook so much she couldn't light. She shook for 20 minutes, and Tasneem held her and listened to her confessions.

"Should I call Jeanette?"

Ms. Munro gave a slight nod.

Tasneem went to the living room to make the call. She told Jeanette she should come. She said "Yes" twice more and then took the phone to Ms. Munro. Tasneem left the room.

 

Tasneem shut off the television. Ms. Munro wasn't watching, hadn't been for a while. Her head was tilted towards the ceiling. Tasneem listened to her breaths. They had never spoken about the thing most certain in their arrangement.

Here they were.

Tasneem put her chin on the bed next to the hand she was holding. She could see Ms. Munro's eyes under their lids.

Tasneem couldn't be the one Ms. Munro really wanted there, she wasn't the person Ms. Munro was thinking of, and yet nothing was more immediate to Tasneem than that moment. It was a humbling asymmetry.

"...you believe in God?"

Ms. Munro had turned her head slightly towards Tasneem. The words barely choked through.

This was the confession game, too.

"Yes," Tasneem said.

"Do you know... what happens?"

"I think so," Tasneem said. "But I don't know."

Ms. Munro's eyes settled on her.

Tasneem clutched her hand as long as she could, not knowing when either of them was alone.

 

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